When you talk about elite NFL QBs, a few names come to mind — Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan (if you know anything about football). Unfortunately, the Falcons will face every name on this list except for Jackson (and Ryan for obvious reasons).
Up first is Russell Wilson, a Super Bowl Champion who has been carrying the Seahawks since they drafted him in 2012. Seven Pro Bowls, over 29,000 yards in the air, and almost 4,000 rushing yards later — Wilson has established himself as an upper-echelon NFL QB. I never saw Wilson as “underrated,” as many others have until I learned that he has never received a SINGLE MVP vote. That’s a little absurd, but I’m not here to talk about awards and accolades.
Excluding Darqueze Dennard & Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Atlanta will be trotting out one of the youngest CB groups in the entire NFL. Isaiah Oliver is 23 years young with 18 starts under his belt. Kendall Sheffield is 24 and was a pleasant surprise during his rookie season — clocking in for 11 starts, making an impact in the slot, and even on the boundary in certain situations. But all eyes will be on 21-year-old rookie A.J. Terrell.
The Clemson product was eaten alive by LSU’s offense in the 2020 CFB National Championship, but that offense — led by Joe Burrow — was an all-time juggernaut. He had a crucial pick-six early off Tua Tagovailoa in the 2019 CFB National Championship that gave Clemson a lead they would not surrender, so he’s also shined in big moments. And in ACC play, nobody was a match for him. Terrell is penciled in as a starter for the Falcons and fits Dan Quinn’s mold of long cornerbacks.
Raheem Morris had some glowing reviews for this new look CB group:
Raheem Morris on Isaiah Oliver, AJ Terrell and DBs heading into this Seattle game pic.twitter.com/CNvjqZmn31
— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) September 9, 2020
Terrell raised some eyebrows as the 16th overall pick — especially with CeeDee Lamb going one slot after. However, Terrell has been raved about coming out of camp, facing Julio Jones, Calvin Riley, and Hayden Hurst in practice every day. I’ll wait until I see it on the field before I praise the selection, but it’s an encouraging sign.
Isaiah Oliver’s rookie campaign was disappointing, but he had a nice end to 2019 and registered 11 PDs. As putrid as the 2019 Falcons defense was, Oliver took a big step. He’s going to be thrust into a much larger role with Desmond Trufant sporting Honolulu Blue in 2020.
Kendall Sheffield gave about all you can ask out of a fourth-round pick. Like Oliver, he didn’t snag any interceptions, but he was crucial in Atlanta’s dominant victory over New Orleans. He was spotted in a walking boot at practice, so hopefully, he’s back sooner rather than later.
Rookie CB Kendall Sheffield had the best game of his young career yesterday. He recorded a coverage grade of 89.9 on 53 coverage snaps.
Sheffield was targeted 7 times and allowed 5 receptions for only 28 yards and 0 First Downs or Touchdowns.
— PFF ATL Falcons (@PFF_Falcons) November 11, 2019
Darqueze Dennard is unbelievably valuable at $910,000 on a one year deal.
Dennard: 6.7 yards/rec allowed since 2017
6th lowest among CBs pic.twitter.com/y1WUmtokXd
— PFF (@PFF) March 17, 2020
Darqueze Dennard was stout against the run a season ago but had just a 60.7 coverage grade.
— PFF (@PFF) March 9, 2019
As we all know, Dennard did not end up in Jacksonville. He was PFF’s 22nd highest-graded corner in 2019, and if he gives the Falcons that in 2020, he will outplay his price tag by a country mile. He’s excellent in the slot, so he’ll likely be across Tyler Lockett in a handful of situations.
So what are these guys up against? D.K. Metcalf laughably tumbled down draft boards and turned in an excellent rookie season for Seattle, totaling 900 yards and seven TDs. Tyler Lockett has been one of Russell Wilson’s favorite and most consistent targets — the 2015 First Team All Pro chipped in 1,057 yards and eight TDs in 2019. Greg Olsen signed with Seattle, but it’s unclear what he actually has left in the tank.
However, when talking about defending Seattle, it begins and ends with Russell Wilson. He makes everything on the Seahawks click, and they are consistently contending and in the postseason picture due to his playmaking ability and leadership.
Wilson’s drug some pretty mediocre teams to the playoffs and won games — his moxie cannot be understated. He will be working with another patchwork offensive line this season, so it will be crucial for Atlanta’s defensive line to make him uncomfortable, helping out these young corners.
Keanu Neal being back in the fold and Damontae Kazee playing a “star” role should give the cornerbacks extra support, but Wilson will make magic happen no matter what the Falcons scheme against him. It’s going to be an incredibly challenging test for a secondary group that has spent so little time together, which means the Falcons’ offense will have to be at the top of their game if they want to pull out a Week 1 victory.